Counting the Pack

During a recent trail run I watched Conall do something I’ve seen him do before, but this time, in a flash of insight, it took on greater meaning.

I had an “Aha!” moment. Suddenly, a behavior I’d observed without much thought was shown in a much broader and important context. Reflecting on memories of similar behaviors in my earlier Malamutes, I realized I was witnessing something profound.

Conall was counting pack members.

No matter that he didn’t know they weren’t really going to be joining our pack of two. In that moment, he had reason to believe they would be, so he counted them. He created a scent tally in his mind of each individual new pack member.

My Life with Malamutes:  Some Background

One of the reasons oh-so-many years ago I chose an Alaskan Malamute over a Siberian husky was because I read that Malamutes are pack-oriented and will stay with their pack – their humans – whereas huskies are far more independent, often running off on their own adventures for hours or even days at a time if not restrained by fence or leash. I wanted and needed a dog that could run with me off-leash, so in 1985 I got my first Malamute and named her Opus.

I wish I could say I was keenly attuned to Opus’ behaviors and learned much about dog behavior in general and Malamutes in particular from her. She was my beloved companion for 14 years and I did learn a lot from her, but most of our life together was spent in the suburbs while I was busy building a law practice. She and I didn’t spend a lot of time on forest trails so I didn’t have many opportunities to watch her utilize her natural instincts and abilities. My bad.

Soon after Opus passed, in 1999 I got an eight-week-old Alaskan Malamute and named her Maia. I was now in a place in life where I could spend more time with, and focus more attention on, my dog. We did lots of training together when she was a pup, and soon she was my regular running companion, on-leash when in the city, off-leash when on the trails. In the forest, off-leash, she always led, but stayed close. I quickly noticed her keen observation skills, seeing, smelling and hearing critters long before I did. I watched and learned her body language over a broad range of interactions: with people, other dogs, and wildlife.

Because of her keen instincts, I credit Maia with giving me the confidence to explore the natural world, showing me so much I would otherwise have missed.

Two years after bringing Maia home I added another Malamute puppy, Meadow, to our pack. The two of them bonded instantly and strongly. We were now a pack of three, although my then-boyfriend Mike was with us so much, including virtually all of our trail runs, that really, we were a pack of four.

Maia was always lead dog, allowing me to constantly observe her body language as we made our way along trails. I quickly realized that she always knew the most direct route back to the car, even in new areas; she would balk at taking round-about routes. (I joked she had a GPS implanted in her brain.) I learned that Maia’s dropped tail, coupled with standing utterly still and looking nervously up the trail or into the trees, meant bear. (I began referring to her as my bear radar. Her bear-detecting ability once saved us from a potentially bad encounter with a mama bear and her cub.) When either dog stopped to raise their nose in the air, sniffing the scents in the air with tail held high over their back, wagging oh-so-slowly, there were deer or elk nearby and I’d better leash them up. When they heard or saw other people approaching, maybe with dogs, they stood right on the trail, tails and heads held high, observing and gauging the newcomers. As soon as I said something, even just “Hi,” they would relax and approach the people/dogs slowly, tails wagging in friendship. One time we came across a sketchy-looking guy on a trail – he was definitely out of place there – and neither girl had any interest in greeting him, which was unusual, so I gave him wide berth, refusing to even say hello. Even though I know Malamutes are exceedingly friendly, I like that to the uninitiated, they appear intimidating and potentially dangerous if riled, keeping bad actors at bay.

Occasionally on those weekend trail runs with Mike and the girls, when one of us wanted to log more miles the other would peel off to take a shorter route back to their car. When it came time for Mike to go one way and me – with the girls – another, they became so upset! We were splitting the pack, and that’s just not allowed in the Malamute Code. Together they would dash after Mike, then come dashing back for me. I would entice them to follow me, but almost immediately they’d be visibly upset and turn back for Mike again. Back and forth. After our first experience with this distress I realized I had to leash the girls to keep them with me for a good five minutes after we “split the pack” before I could let them off-leash again without worrying they’d turn back to search for Mike.

In 2005, when Maia was six and Meadow four, we moved to Idaho (without Mike) and spent even more time running trails, exploring the national forest near our home. Their skills at spotting and identifying various wildlife were expanded, as were my skills at reading their body language to determine what they spotted. Lots of trial and error on my part, for sure, but eventually I was confident I knew what was ahead of or behind us based solely on their body language. The one time we encountered a wolf in the forest, I instantly knew from Maia’s body language that she’d spotted something new.

Now, with Conall, I’m seeing all those innate abilities and behaviors that Meadow and especially Maia possessed: the keen senses of smell, hearing and sight that allow him to know what wildlife is nearby; subtle differences in body language alerting to different creatures (bear; elk; deer; not-so-wild-but-freely-roaming cattle; humans; dogs; turkey; grouse; squirrel; chipmunk; and, alas, skunk). Conall has the same stop-and-assess behavior when spotting large wildlife and before greeting people and dogs on trails. It’s one of the traits I most appreciate.

By contrast, Finn – my Australian shepherd – exhibits virtually none of these alerting behaviors. A herding breed dog, he wants to chase anything that moves, sometimes before he’s even identified what it is. He’s not out to attack or kill anything – if wildlife remains still, he trots right past it, oblivious. He just wants to herd moving creatures away. Now that Finn is older (12.5 years) and slowing (slightly), I notice he’s as focused on Conall’s body language when we’re out in the forest as I am. Conall is usually in the lead. If he stops to watch, smell or listen, Finn also stops and watches Conall intently to determine whether it’s safe to continue on. I love this synergy because Conall’s behavior often gives me the few seconds I need to tell Finn to stay so I can put a leash on him, knowing that Conall has spotted cattle, or deer up ahead.

Finn’s breed isn’t known for having a pack mentality. Bred to herd cattle, Aussies are independent operators, looking to their human for direction in terms of their “job” but not terribly worried about keeping a pack together. For example, Finn wouldn’t be concerned if a friend running with us accidentally took a different path or fell off pace and lost contact with us. Finn is a wonderful trail (and house) companion, but honestly, the only thing I can rely on him for when we’re in the forest is to make sure I’m never attacked by rabid squirrels.

With Conall, on the other hand (and Maia before him), I know I won’t get lost, I’ll be warned of any animals – two- or four-legged – in the vicinity, and he’ll make sure our pack, however he defines it on a given day, will stay together. Plus, he keeps me entertained with his goofball antics.

Malamutes Are One of the Closest Wolf Relatives

Domestic dogs share virtually all of their DNA (99.9 or 99.8% depending on the reference) with wolves. Some breeds – considered “old” breeds – are more closely related to wolves than others. Among these old breeds are Alaskan Malamutes, which also retain the most wolf-like appearance of all dog breeds.

I’ve been fascinated with wolves most of my life. One of the joys of living with Alaskan Malamutes for the past 35 years is noticing how many of their instinctual behaviors are wolf-like. I feel like I’m doing observational research into wolf behavior by extrapolating from the Malamute behaviors I’ve seen consistently for decades. There are so many parallels, many not considered by researchers.

My own personal theory for how wolves first came to co-habit with humans however many thousands of years ago, eventually leading to the domesticated dogs we know and love today, consists of four major attributes possessed by wolves:

  • First, their ability to read body language and eyes, not just within their own species, but of other animals, including humans. Dogs became successful at cohabiting with humans because of their ability to read and sometimes mimic our emotions.
  • Second, their keen senses helped lead humans to game, to food.
  • Third, their amazing sense of place and direction helped make sure the humans never got lost after pursuing game over vast distances.
  • Fourth, their affinity for babies, their own as well as human infants and toddlers. (I’ve never met a Malamute who didn’t ADORE babies.) Early humans must have observed the wolves’ pack behaviors, how well they cared for their own families, especially vulnerable pups. Based on what I’ve seen in my Malamutes, I’ve always believed that in those early relationships between humans and wolves, the wolves demonstrated their love for human babies, which surely assuaged fear in the humans at having the wolves close by. Perhaps some of those early wolves even acted as babysitters for human infants, just as they did for wolf pups in their own packs, freeing the humans to pursue more food gathering, sharing it with the wolves.

A win-win situation for sure, giving some wolves a food and survival advantage and the humans ample reason to keep the wolves around, domesticating them into what ultimately became the dogs of various breeds we know and love today. The human-wolf co-evolution may have started as long as 100,000 years ago. It’s a field of scientific inquiry that is still hotly debated, with much to learn and discover. To date, I’ve never seen a scientific paper on the topic tie the behaviors of wolves and their the domestic dogs most closely related to them together for insights into how those early interactions between humans and wolves may have played out. I think it’s worth exploring.

What Makes a Pack?

I’ve learned that Malamutes can have several packs. They have their homies, the dogs and people they live with every day. Then they have their play date packs, whether at an off-leash park they regularly visit, or friends (human or canine) they see frequently on walks or on trails. With Maia and Meadow, before moving to Idaho we spent an hour most weekday evenings at a local play field with other neighborhood people and their dogs. Those dogs became a pack, along with their people, because they spent so much time together. They easily recognized and happily greeted pack members. If an unfamiliar dog and/or person approached from the perimeter, however, they would dash up as a group to greet and check out the new addition. (How intimidating for the new dog, right? But it almost always resulted in a big welcome to the group.)

Conall’s home pack is me and Finn. Because there aren’t any off-leash dog parks where I live, Conall really hasn’t developed a pack of regular playmates, but he does love to meet dogs on the trails and sometimes, if we see them often enough, I can tell he considers them peripheral members of our pack. Other dogs in our neighborhood, seen regularly as we drive in and out, are definitely not pack members; Conall (and Finn) are always on alert when they spot them from the car because they’ve never actually met them, had a sniff-and-greet. If a new dog moves into the neighborhood, both Conall and Finn are on high alert, woofing to make sure I know there’s a newcomer. It can take several sightings before they stop alerting to the new dog.

My friend Ben, who often runs with us, became a member of our pack the first time he ran trails with us. When we’re on the trail, Conall keeps track of us all. It’s his job. In fact, Conall’s trail behavior changes significantly when Ben does run with us. When it’s just me, Conall and Finn on a run, Conall takes the lead. When Ben began joining us on occasional runs, we would start out with Conall in the lead, followed by me and Finn and Ben bringing up the rear. But Conall kept slowing his pace, so much so that I had to slow mine and my view of the trail was blocked by his big fluffy body, increasing the chances I would trip. I got tired of saying, “Go, Conall; go!” and finally asked Ben to take the lead. Conall tucked in behind Ben and in front of me, with Finn either ahead of me or bringing up the rear. We were able to run at a comfortable pace in that configuration, which allowed Conall to easily keep an eye and ear on all of us. Although, if I need to stop to take a pee and Ben continues up the trail to give me privacy, Conall gets nervous, following Ben but eventually returning to make sure I’m safe and intending to keep up, while Finn stays near me because he’s not into the pack mentality thing and instead simply remembers who feeds him every day. Take Ben out of the running picture and Finn, Conall and I return to our usual configuration, Conall in the lead.

Packs are a fluid concept for Malamutes, which makes sense. For wolves in the wild, pack membership and dynamics could change over time. Wolves need to adapt to pack changes in order to work together for the benefit of all pack members, which maintaining vigilance against competing packs. An ability to recognize their own pack – visually as well as by scent – over broad expanses of terrain is critical to overall pack safety and viability. My experience tells me that those instincts and abilities have been preserved in their close cousins the Alaskan Malamute.

Creating a New Pack on the Trail

All of my observations over time with several dogs helped me understand what I was watching Conall do that recent morning while running trails in a popular mountain biking trail system in the forest. I chose that location for a Saturday morning jaunt because I hoped Conall would have the opportunity to greet some mountain bikers – he loves them; has since his first encounters with them as a puppy – and maybe some nice dogs as well. We scored on all counts.

But it was Conall’s interaction with a group of six mountain bikers that opened my eyes.

Usually, Conall hears a biker or two up the trail, stops and listens, and when he finally sees them, goes all soft and wiggly as he watches them approach. He knows to stay out of their way if they don’t stop, but if they do stop, he loves getting closer to make eye contact and hear them say hello or, “He’s gorgeous!” If they do get off their bike, he’s all in with a full-on greeting including pets and even kisses if they want them. (Especially kids; Conall loves kissing kids.) But most cyclists don’t get off their bikes or even stop. After a brief hello between them and me – standing off the trail – they’re gone, Conall watching their backs disappear down the trail. He never tries to follow them.

dog on boulder in forest
Conall posing on a boulder.

This recent morning played out differently, though. Conall was posing on a boulder in a section of trail where it makes two tight switchbacks through some large, rugged boulders on a fairly steep hillside, with several big, sharp rocks poking out of the trail as well. It’s technical; experienced bikers ride it but many walk it. Even I, as a runner, am careful through there. It’s a pretty spot, one we usually have to ourselves, and Conall enjoys posing for photos on the boulders.

dog, boulder, trees
Conall’s body language says he hears something approaching, but I can’t see past him.

As Conall was striking a few poses, he heard something and turned toward the sound, his tail dropping as he concentrated. I was behind him and couldn’t see beyond the boulder he was posing on, but I guessed some bikers were approaching. A second or two later, Conall’s tail started swishing back and forth and his body relaxed, he way of signaling, “Oh boy! Bikers approaching!”

I moved a few yards up the trail for a better view. When Conall and I both saw the first biker appear, I called out, “Friendly dog approaching!” Conall’s cue it was okay to greet the cyclist. Two other bikers appeared behind the first, slightly uphill from him. I had my camera out and was taking photos while also observing the bikers and Conall to make sure everyone was happy and safe.

forest, mountain bikers
Conall greeting the first three of the group of mountain bikers.

I didn’t want Conall to cause an accident in this tricky section of trail. The first two bikers stopped (without getting off their bikes) and greeted Conall with outstretched hands, which he quickly sniffed, then carefully rode through. Conall bounded back to me, excited.

forest, mountain bikers, dog
Conall, having successfully greeted and sniffed the first two cyclists, starts returning to me. The third one, in the green shirt, has yet to stop to carefully go through the switchbacks.

The third rider stopped and then slowly walked through the most technical part while straddling his bike. Conall took that as a signal to return and get a good sniff of him.

dog, mountain biker, forest
Conall dashes back to greet and sniff the third cyclist as cyclists four and five appear uphill.

While I engaged in some minor chit chat with the third cyclist – having moved off trail to maintain social distancing and stay out of their way – Conall happily bounced around the man, then returned to where I was standing. No sooner had Conall reached me then the next two cyclists started down the switchbacks, part of the same group, so Conall spun to go greet them as well.

dog, mountain bikers, forest
Conall greets riders four and five (rider three on the left). By this point, he considers these people part of our pack because they’re so friendly.

And this is where I noticed the intriguing pattern (and stopped taking photos, to better observe): Conall approached each cyclist, getting a good sniff of an outstretched hand or a leg, then moved to the next to do the same. Once done, he returned to me. He made sure to sniff each and every one. He didn’t linger. He wasn’t seeking physical contact; he even avoided one cyclist’s attempt to pet him.

Immediately after he greeted cyclists four and five, a sixth appeared, the lone woman in the group. As she dismounted to walk the switchbacks, cyclists four and five rode slowly through. The woman was slower and chattier than her friends. Conall got a good sniff of her hand as she and I talked about how wonderful a morning it was, nice and cool in the shade of the trees. That conversation, I later realized, along with the earlier cyclists’ slowed pace and words exchanged with me, were cues to Conall that these people were more than just random cyclists; they were friends.

In his mind, they became pack members. He needed to keep track of them.

When the woman finally mounted her bike and rode away to catch up with her companions, Conall appeared confused. I started running up the trail again, in the opposite direction of the mountain bikers. Conall followed me, but kept stopping to look back at (or more likely, listen to) the disappearing cyclists. He was clearly conflicted; he wanted to follow them but didn’t want to leave me. The new pack was already broken! They’re getting away! But wait, my main person’s going this direction. I have to keep an eye on her; her well-being is my primary job. It was eerily similar to the way Maia and Meadow would behave when Mike and I would part ways, taking different paths or directions on forest trails, confusing and alarming the girls.

In that moment it became crystal clear to me what Conall had done that morning: because the cyclists slowed or stopped, and because I was chatting with them in such a friendly way, he assumed they were joining our pack, so he counted them. He collected their individual scents, adding them to the pack as members. His job, as pack protector, was to know who the members were and to keep track of them. He was visibly upset when they left us. I have no doubt that if he had to go find them to bring this new pack back together, he could have done it.

It took some convincing to get Conall to continue our run away from the cyclists. When just a mile later we turned back, returning along the same trail, he picked up the pace and even cut some switchbacks, hoping to catch up to the cyclists and reconstitute the new pack. I’m certain he was following their scents.

A Malamute’s job is never done: Find the route; alert to wildlife; keep the pack together.

Feature image: Conall posing on a boulder on our return through the technical switchback section of trail.

27 thoughts on “Counting the Pack”

  1. “Because of her keen instincts, I credit Maia with giving me the confidence to explore the natural world, showing me so much I would otherwise have missed.” ❤

    I love this post! Having shared 14 great years with a combination of Conall and Finn. I once took Molly out to see if she had a herding instinct. She ignored the goats and got to know all the people but she did, once, herd all the kids (my niece and her friends) into a corner of the backyard when she was tired of playing with them. Molly was an absolutely reliable and informative trail pal and many of the best mountain experiences of my life I shared with her.

    Teddy wants to chase things, but he also never lets me out of his sight. I wonder sometimes if his comparatively dependent nature, for an Aussie, is because he was abandoned. Wherever I am he is right beside me. I could name him Fido.

    I wish so much I could run. I'd drive to Idaho with my mask and run with you and Conall. What a dream that would be. In my whole LIFE I never met another woman who wanted to run for miles and miles with dogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Martha! Glad you enjoyed it, and I know you can relate.

      I’m so sorry that your running days are behind you, but at least you had many great years with Molly. Every time I start running on a trail I remind myself to enjoy it fully because I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do it, or how much longer Finn’s aging legs will carry him with us. I hope I’m still running (shuffling?) at 90, but, well, life is unpredictable (so eat dessert first)!

      Lucky for us our dogs are happy to match our pace, whatever it is, so long as we’re OUTSIDE, in nature, with all its sights, smells and sounds.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I had a good long run before genetics and stupidity caught up with me. It’s OK. I had all the trails I could find for most of my life with some awesome dogs. The malamute — even the mix — is a very special companion.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting change when Ben joins Conall, Finn, and you. It strikes me with Ben in the lead, the three of you are still in the same configuration as without Ben. The only sign that Ben is accepted as a member of the pack is that Conall is distressed if the pack breaks up. I wonder whether the Malamutes have a notion of a more tightly-knit subpack within a pack.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. Short answer: I think so.

      After reading your comment and thinking back on some of those runs with Ben, I realized that Conall – always happy to be lead dog when it’s just him, me and Finn – had no interest in running in front of Ben and taking the lead. That could certainly be that, as you suggest, that in Conall’s view Ben’s just a minor pack member and so Conall doesn’t feel obligated to alert to or protect him from whatever wildlife or people might be up the trail. Instead, his primary job is to protect me and Finn, so he takes the second position, right in front of me. That said, more than once on those runs with Ben, if I stopped to do my business off trail and Ben went on ahead to provide me with some privacy, Conall often stayed close behind Ben for a couple of minutes before coming back just far enough to find me, making sure I was okay and ready to catch up before turning to chase down Ben. (Finn always stays with me when I take those breaks, and so would Conall but for Ben being with us.) In those instances, I think Conall does his best to keep us all together. Ben doesn’t seem to understand that he shouldn’t keep running, but instead just go far enough to give me privacy, then stop, so Conall has to work extra hard to keep an eye on both of us until I catch up and the pack is reunited. I’ve tested Conall, and when he gets ahead and out of sight, if I don’t catch up as he expects, he ALWAYS comes back right away to find me.

      The other dynamic I’ve noticed is that when Finn stays home and it’s just me and Conall running, Conall stays much closer to me and mostly ignores wildlife beyond alerting me to it. If Finn’s along, it’s a race between the two of them as to who can get to the squirrel running up a tree first, with me completely forgotten in the seconds they’re following their prey drive. In that instance, pack-member Finn drives the narrative: hunt! I’m merely a secondary pack member then, if only briefly.

      Don’t tell Finn this, but I really enjoy those runs when it’s just me and Conall. Much more relaxing, and the bond between us feels stronger.

      Thanks for your observation! You got me thinking deeper on all this, and since I hope these sorts of anecdotes will be included in a book soon, deeper thinking is necessary and welcome.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m looking forward to that book. The idea of cliques within packs is fascinating.

        Forgetting you when on a hunt with Finn does not necessarily mean the formation of a clique within a clique. It is often an activity that drives attention for a short while, although a pack member may initially start that action. Being torn between you and Ben in the situation you describe means that a clique cannot usually make him forget the pack.

        I wonder whether any other observation can distinguish between the two mechanisms: action driving attention, or a clique driving attention.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve been thinking on your question, and will continue to do so, while also observing my dogs with that idea of a clique within a pack in mind. Again, thank you for sparking these thoughts and ideas!

        I agree that prey drive is distinct from clique/pack formation. Prey drive is short term and incredibly focused; when the “hunt” is done, all else returns to normal, almost as if the chase never even happened. But I wonder about hierarchy, or cliques, within packs, now that you’ve got me thinking along those lines. Ben has joined us on runs often enough to be familiar and welcomed as part of our pack, but perhaps in Conall’s mind, he’s a low-level member, someone to keep track of but, push come to shove, I take precedence over Ben. (I hope so! I feed him!)

        In wolf packs, each member has a very defined role and other members rarely if ever ask them to perform additional or alternate roles. I, as alleged pack leader of Conall and Finn, might be asking them to take on additional roles that they struggle with, e.g. keeping track of occasional honorary member Ben. Our human notions of familial bonds and “pack” cohesion are more fluid than that of wolves, so perhaps I’m seeing some of that conflict play out in Conall’s actions. Intriguing ideas and things to watch for.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Love Connal stories! In my book I describe Sawyer as “cataloging” scents on the trail. I have no idea if that is really the way it works but seeing this it makes me think so. Are you still working on your Wolf book? I really want to read it when you finish it. I’m at the end game in my book now. I should have a full rough draft pretty soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think “cataloging” is the perfect description of dog scent collection. So much information contained in all those molecules flying up their noses!

      I almost didn’t post this piece, thinking “Who cares? It’s just me, my dogs and my observational theories.” But my Aha! moments of putting two-and-two together rarely steer me wrong, and the reaction to the piece gives me lots of encouragement, as it’s this sort of writing I want to include in my book. It may end up being less about wolves and more about the natural world in general, but wolves will play a key role. Thanks for the encouragement, Lee! And I look forward to reading your book. I’m impressed that your rough draft is almost done!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dogs are wonderful. My Sadie is also a pack protector and gets very distressed when we don’t all stay together. Awhile back I walked with her and my husband and daughter to the coffee shop a couple of blocks away, after getting our order from the coffee shop my husband and daughter went to go back home and I planned to take Sadie for a longer walk heading the other way. This was very upsetting for her and took her a while to stop whimpering and looking behind us in the direction the other two went. We have decided this is not a very good plan. She seems to be okay leaving pack members at home, but splitting up on an outing is unacceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really think they believe keeping their pack together and safe is their primary job in life, and when we won’t let them do that job it’s quite stressful! Like you, I try to avoid putting my dogs in that situation. Hard enough when Conall and I occasionally leave Finn home (to let him rest), but he accepts that and feels safe alone at home. But if I try to make him stay in the car where he can watch Conall and I leave (e.g. if we do a short loop including Finn, then Conall and I want to add a second loop) he gets really worried and barks, visibly stressed.

      Liked by 1 person

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